Stranded in Saudi Arabia without a passport

Would you dare enter Saudi Arabia without a passport? No, me neither. But I did.

The first time I went to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was on a business trip. I was honoured to be the keynote speaker at the first ever conference and exhibition on the creative economy in the country: the Ejadah Confex.

Of course I first had to get a visa to enter the country, which is quite a process because I had to get letters of invitation from both the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of course both are written in Arabic, so it’s difficult to know if the details are correct if, like me, you don’t read Arabic. Anyway, everything was all in order, I sent my application form, fee and passport to the embassy in London and in due course got my passport back with a full-page visa attached on one of the 48 pages of my British passport. This was a single-entry visa, which would expire once I left the country. I’d have to get another visa for any further trips.

The Ejadah Confex went well. It was a pleasure to be amongst creative entrepreneurs and the organisers were very hospitable to me. My speech was well received and my business development workshop was well attended. The conference and exhibition were a7 the King Abdullah Economic City, several miles from Jeddah, but the trip included some spare time so I went into the city for an afternoon, to look around.

After several days, when all my work was done and it was time to go home, I went to airport after midnight for a flight at 3.40 am back to UK. I did the usual things; in some respects all airports are the same: I checked in my baggage, got my boarding pass, went through the rigmarole of security screening, then queued at border control.

I was apprehensive because my experience at immigration several days earlier wasn’t easy or pleasant. On arrival, it concerned me when the immigration officer put my passport aside on his desk and told me to stand waiting against the wall while all the other travellers passed through with minimum fuss. What was wrong? I didn’t know if there was some administrative hitch, or I had the wrong type of visa, or what. I waited patiently and calmly but was a bit worried. After 15 minutes I asked what was happening but the man gave me no answer and told me again to wait. I felt like a naughty schoolboy standing outside the head teacher’s office and was embarrassed as the other passengers looked at me, wondering why I’d been singled out. In the crowd from Manchester were groups of British Muslims, on a pilgrimage to Mecca. One or two of these lads made lighthearted comments about my predicament, which I took to be good natured banter, but it didn’t help change anything. After another 20 minutes or so he walked away, leaving his kiosk empty with my passport on the desk, alongside his computer. Eventually another officer came and sat inside the glass box; it must have been a change of shifts. I asked him what was going on and pointed to my passport. He simply replied: “system”. System what? The system is down? The computer says ‘no’? A while later, when there was a gap in the stream of arriving passengers, he picked up my passport, processed my entry on the computer, stamped my passport with an ‘entry’ stamp, and handed it to me. At last I was in. I had now officially arrived and been granted entry to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

That was my entry; now I was on the way out. Would it be similarly complicated? How long would I have to wait this time? In fact it was routine and quite quick. My passport was stamped with a rectangular ‘Exit’ stamp alongside the earlier oval ‘Entry’ stamp. My visa was now expired. I was now officially out of the country. I was still on Saudi soil but in that glitzy no mans land of duty free shops, cafes and boarding gates, the territorial limbo when you are officially nowhere.

Luckily the conference organisers had paid for a business class flight for me, which entitled me to access the VIP Lounge, a place of free food, good wifi and space to relax or to work. Then, in the middle of the night, I stood in the tired queue at the gate for the 03.40 flight to Manchester. After a while, a mutter rippled back from the front of the line. Saudi flight SV123 was cancelled. Oh no! There’s never a convenient time for a flight to be cancelled but it was worse for the many people who were in wheelchairs, or were elderly, who were returning from their pilgrimage to Islam’s sacred place. Soon the orderly line had become an agitated crowd, demanding to know what was happening. There was no real information and a lack of staff to handle the situation, just one uniformed chap trying to field all the questions. I felt sorry for him too. It was chaos.

As the crowd mobbed him, passengers started talking to one another, as strangers tend to do when forced together in some sort of crisis. One woman I spoke with was anxious to get back to the UK because she had an appointment at the Passport Office for her son’s new passport he needed to fly to study in the USA. Some people had medical appointments back in England. Other people had to get back for work. Some passengers had connecting flights they would now miss.

After a while we learnt that the plan was to take us all to hotels for the night and then put us on a flight in the afternoon, some ten hours or so later than scheduled. I figured we wouldn’t get much sleep, by the time they organised the transport and we had checked in to the hotel, setting alarms to get up after a few hours sleep to allow time for some quick breakfast, returning to the airport, then checking in all over again. I decided it was hardly worth bothering with. But what clinched it for me, the thing that made me decide to stay at the airport for the night, was the sight of one little chap in the middle of the crowd asking people to throw their passports into a large brown envelope, as if he was collecting rubbish from passengers on a train. Woah! No way was I going to surrender my passport into such a disorganised system. And how would we manage without passports, back in Saudi Arabia, on the land side of the border and the immigration police? I went back to the VIP lounge and settled down for the night.

It must have been late morning, around 11am, when I was woken up by two uniformed airport officials who politely asked me what I was doing there. By now the lounge was busy again with passengers and I felt disheveled, groggy and embarrassed as I woke up from my slumber and became vertical again. I explained that I was waiting for the rescheduled flight at 2pm, in a few hours time. Then they gave me the bad news. There would be no flight that Tuesday afternoon, after all. Instead, we would fly out on Thursday morning at 07.40, around 55 hours later than originally scheduled. They suggested that I should now accept the offer of a hotel. I had no choice really, so went along with them. At least because I was now on my own I was able to ask about the procedure for going back into the country without a passport or visa. They gave me a slip of paper as a kind of receipt for my passport, not much more than a raffle ticket really, and told me that if the police or anybody else in authority asked about my passport I should just say that it was with the immigration police.

And so I went to the hotel at the airport, the only one with any rooms available. It was shabby, the kind of place with sticky carpets and smoky rooms. I was given vouchers for basic meals. This would be my home for a couple of days.

Worse things have happened to me on my travels and others have been far more unfortunate. Unlike most of the others, it wasn’t a disaster for me to be delayed because I was planning to work in my office, catching up on paperwork when I got back home: I didn’t have any meetings planned for the next two days. In the hotel I came across a few other Manchester-bound passengers. One was Tony, a gentleman from Yorkshire. He was concerned about an elderly chap who was travelling alone and didn’t know how to contact his relatives back in England. He didn’t seem to be able to deal with things, though he wasn’t unduly distressed. We figured that some relatives had taken him to the airport in Jeddah and other members of his family would meet him in Manchester. But how would they know about the delay?

Tony Swainson and I got on really well. We had lots in common, personally and professionally. Tony was returning from working in the country, delivering his training courses, which he did extensively in the Middle East and elsewhere. I was a first-timer here but he was a veteran, with lots of contacts. We kept in touch and met up back in the UK to explore business collaborations. Tony introduced and recommended me to one of his clients in Madinah and as a result I went back to Saudi to deliver one of my own workshops for senior managers on a leadership programme.

“Every cloud has a silver lining”, as they say. There’s always something good to come out of a mishap. “Never waste a crisis” is a wise aphorism. Having read several books on Stoic philosophy (it’s not as grim as you think), I’ve learnt to ask myself at such times as this: “What’s the opportunity here?” [On another occasion, when a flight was delayed just a couple of hours returning from speaking at a conference in Asturias, I scribbled a note to myself in haiku format: Flight delayed three hours/ – so more time to read my book/about stoicism!]

There was another bonus too. I was planning to email my Saudi colleagues to let them know I had arrived safely back in England but instead I let them know I was still at the airport. Their response was enthusiastic. “Great news!” they said. This would give them an opportunity to take me out to a special place, a seafood restaurant by the sea that they had told me about but in the end didn’t have time to take me there. So off we all went for a banquet, with colleagues who had now become friends, to enjoy a long evening of amazing food and pleasant company.

PostScript: You might be asking yourself whether I received any compensation for this two-day delay.  But here’s the thing: Saudi Arabia is outside the jurisdiction of EU flight compensation regulations. What’s more, they don’t seem to have the same sense of customer care we have come to expect in Europe. I did contact Saudia Airlines through their website, requesting an apology and compensation, but they didn’t even respond.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
First published 21 November 2018.

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